If you have ever sat in a park for long enough, or if you live in a suburb with lots of trees and enjoyed a Saturday morning cup of coffee on the porch, I’m sure you would have noticed a couple of squirrels darting around up and down trees and fences.
I’m sure the entertainment would have led to the question, “why do squirrels chase each other in the first place?”
When squirrels chase one another, it is often a form of defense against other rival squirrels. Chases are related to the age and gender of the squirrel and include territorial disputes, scuffles over food, and pursuing potential mates. Young squirrels chase each other as a form of “playing.”
Although entertaining to watch, there are some fundamental ecological reasons for squirrels playing “tag” with one another. But which squirrel does the chasing? Do all squirrels chase one another? What are some of the triggers to start a chase? And for how long does the running last?
Squirrel Behavior 101, How Does Chasing Fit into Ecology
Squirrels are mammals with highly developed brains, complex behaviors, and, occasionally, specific social hierarchies.
There are over 200 species of squirrels naturally occupying all continents, except for Antarctica and Australia.
Different species of squirrels will exhibit different types of behaviors, as brought on by environmental pressures.
For example, tree squirrels in the USA will face different pressures from ground squirrels in southern Africa.
The type and amount of food available, the habitat, predators, drought conditions, and distribution patterns all influence how squirrels (animals in general) react in certain situations.
We can divide the behavior of chasing into its purpose (what does it benefit the squirrels, or the “because”), as well as the reason (why they do it) behind the chase.
The Purpose of Squirrels Chasing One Another Explained
The purpose of adult squirrels chasing can either be to evict an unwanted squirrel from the area or to “catch” a potential mate.
Younger squirrels also chase each other, but these bouts are generally not linked to a “serious” matter and can be thought of as training and development for when they are adults.
Squirrels chase one another in order to settle dominance-related issues. The more dominant squirrel will generally chase the less away from its area.
Chasing often takes place with biting and “wrestling” with one another. These behaviors are generally not severe enough to cause drastic harm to competitors.
However, these situations can escalate to a proper fight, where they may sustain grievous injuries.
Violent conflict in most animal species is not ideal for the challenger or the “reigning champ;” because of the risk of incurring injuries. This risk applies to both (all) squirrels involved.
An injured squirrel needs time to recover, reducing the amount of time available for other activities, like finding a mate and breeding, collecting food, or establishing a territory.
Alternatively, if the injuries sustained are critical (dire), the injured squirrel will not recover and die (either from the wounds themselves or from not providing for themselves).
To avoid these repercussions, squirrels “fight” with one another through chasing.
Squirrels will generally chase one another until the “perpetrator” is evicted from the area.
The species type, age, and gender of the squirrel in question determine the size of the area.
Which Squirrels Do the Chasing and Which Squirrels Are Chased?
Who gets chased and who does the chasing depends entirely on which squirrels are involved in the behavior.
If a dominant male and a sub-dominant are contesting over a territory, the dominant will be doing the chasing, while the sub-dominant male does the running away.
When two sub-dominant males are vying for a new territory, it could go both ways.
When a squirrel is aging, and a younger squirrel challenges it, the older squirrel may be chased away.
When it comes to breeding, males generally chase females and other males, although for different reasons.
Juvenile squirrels at “play” will go back and forth chasing one another, with no “winner or loser,” they carry on wrestling and chasing until they are no longer interested in the “game” any longer.
Reasons for Squirrels Chasing One Another
Below are the reasons as to why squirrels will chase each other, along with examples.
1 – Play
The controversial point seems like a good starting point. Play is a human construct and interpretation of observed animal behavior.
What young animals do, we humans often refer to as “playing.”
However, there are generally more survival motivations than entertainment/recreational-related ones regarding these behaviors.
When young animals “play,” they hone their life skills by practicing what they would be doing as adults, with less lethal or severe consequences.
Not only are they practicing while playing, but they are developing the neural pathways for specific movements and behaviors, allowing for a better-cultivated skill set.
Adult squirrels may also exhibit “playful” behaviors, but the motivations, benefits, and purpose are still not fully understood.
2 – Territorial Disputes
When a new squirrel enters a dominant squirrel’s territory, they have infringed and must be evicted.
A territory is a smaller area where an animal will actively defend itself and the location from intruders. At the same time, a home range is an entire area where an animal spends its time.
Animals usually don’t try and chase others out of their home ranges.
Territories, however, often have the best resources (food, water, shelter, and access to mates), which is why they are defended.
A squirrel’s territory is usually 17 acres, but some are recorded as 25 acres and more!
The squirrel species, its age, social standing, and the resources available determine the territory size.
Where food is abundant, territories are usually smaller. Where food is scarce, domains will be more extensive. The size of a single territory can also change from season to season.
In the summer, when food is plentiful, a territory may be smaller. However, when food becomes scarce during the fall and winter, squirrels may defend these resources with vehemence.
Animals (squirrels in this example) will decide whether the energy expenditure is worth the reward before chasing competitors away.
Territorial disputes are one of the most frequent reasons for squirrel chases. They are identifiable by the spiraling motion up, down, and around a tree trunk/pole during the chase.
Not all species of squirrel are territorial.
Some common examples of territorial species include:
- American Red squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus)
- California Ground squirrels (Spermophilus beecheyi)
- Northern Flying squirrels (Glaucomys sabrinus)
Squirrels that do not exhibit territorial behavior include:
- Abert’s squirrels (Sciurus aberti)
- Eastern Grey squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis)
- Eastern Fox squirrels (Sciurus niger)
Why Are Some Species Territorial While Others Are Not?
Basically, the reason for holding territory is to protect a resource found within it.
These resources are food, water, nesting sites, mates, or anything that a squirrel deems necessary enough to risk bodily harm over keeping.
Sometimes a territory is also established concerning the effort a squirrel puts into their burrows. This is especially the case with Californian ground squirrels.
Territoriality can also be divided within a species. For example, in certain species of flying squirrels, females are occasionally territorial, whereas males are not.
The females’ territoriality is linked to the availability of nesting sites.
When a female births offspring, she will become aggressive, protective, and territorial while the young are still babies.
When a species is not territorial, it generally stems from needing to move around a lot in search of food or if there is more than enough food available.
Sometimes squirrels establish a colony for survival. They share the responsibility of keeping watch for predators and may even defend the territory against them.
Colonies, however, may also defend their areas from intruder squirrels.
3 – Competition
In certain situations, a non-territorial squirrel will also chase another squirrel around. This is to show potential rivals who the most dominant squirrel is.
This chasing forms part of deciding who fits where in a hierarchy, especially for social squirrels and those living in close proximity to one another.
This dominance is usually manifested in “peace-loving” species when disputes arise over food, housing space, or a potential mate.
Competition Over Food
When squirrels live together in social groups or close proximity without clearly demarcated territories, feeding becomes a dominance-related factor.
The most dominant squirrels have first access to high-quality foods, while sub-dominant squirrels need to wait their turn.
This situation is often contested by the sub-dominants, who are chased for their efforts.
Competition over food also occurs during the winter season when the ownership of stockpiles is in question.
A squirrel who puts effort into establishing a midden (or scattered middens) does not like sharing with his neighbor.
Competition Over a Potential Mate
When it comes time to breed, males will try and outdo each other in order to mate with a receptive female.
Chasing, aggression, vocalizing, and wrestling all take the front stage during these times, with dominant males showing the sub-dominants who the king of the hill is.
The purpose of a hierarchy is so that during feeding and breeding scuffles, the more dominant individuals have the first choice of the resources in contention.
This dominance is not set in stone and the hierarchy changes and shifts over time as younger squirrels become older and dominant squirrels become “geriatric.”
4 – Pursuing a Potential Mate
There are many hormones at work when it comes to mating, so chasing rival males and chasing after a female in heat is more or less linked.
However, during the rut, males chase females backward and forwards, across branches, with loads of vocalizing (chittering and chattering) in an attempt to get her to mate with him.
The Process of Squirrels Chasing One Another Explained
Chasing Due to Territorial Disputes
The whole chasing process starts long before a rival squirrel enters a territory. A squirrel will have marked its territory with urine and posturing (tail twitching).
Squirrels also mark their territories with secretions from glands on their cheeks (or around their mouths, but some species also have glands on their backs).
If these odoriferous cues are not enough, when a potential threat/challenger enters the area, the territory owner begins to vocalize with warning barks.
If the other squirrel still refuses to take the hint, then a chase issues forth. Nips and wrestling accompany these chases.
Aside from spiraling up and down a trunk, the chase can also involve jumping from tree branch to branch and sometimes even across open grassy areas.
At the end of a chasing session, the squirrels will either go their separate ways, or there may be a fierce fight that develops.
How long a chase lasts usually depends on the more dominant squirrel. When they are satisfied that the impetuous intruder has learned its lesson, they call off the chase.
Following this, the dominant squirrel returns to their feeding area while the loser moves off in search of more leisurely meals.
Chasing of a Potential Mate
During the rutting season, males will slowly chase after females in close proximity (with his nose against her leg).
During the chase, males will obtain reproductive readiness information from the female through the pheromones she releases.
If the female is deemed receptive, the male will copulate with her, provided the female stands still for long enough.
When males chase competitors during the rutting season, the chase can last for a few minutes to an hour or so.
The timeframe depends on the endurance of the males involved.
At the end of the chase, the victor claims the spoils.
Do All Squirrel Species Chase Each Other?
All squirrel species chase one another. Although not all species are territorial, this will not detract from the practice of chasing one another.
Squirrels may deviate in their responses towards other squirrels. Sometimes (or during specific seasons), there may be little to no chasing.
While at other times, there could be a considerable amount of chasing and other contesting behavior between squirrels.
All squirrels chase one another. This behavior is most often linked to territory and dominance. However, during the rutting season, males chase one another as they vie for a mate, who is also chased at a slower speed.
Chasing is a form of defense against other rival squirrels. Juvenile squirrels will also chase one another as part of their development process.
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